Scientists are closer to understanding why fantasies about the future predict depressive symptoms

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Psychologists have found that fantasizing about the future can lead to increases in depression — and a new study provides some more clues as to why that is.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Consciousness and Cognition in May, examined the role that rumination plays.

“Much research on depression focuses on understanding and changing negative cognitions (including cognitions about the future), but less research has focused on understanding how positive future-oriented cognitions impact depression,” said the study’s corresponding author, Regina Miranda of Hunter College.

Previous research had found that people who fantasized about an idealized future tended to have fewer depressive symptoms in the present, but faced more depressive symptoms in the future.

“This study builds on the work of Gabriele Oettingen, a researcher at NYU who has found that imagining a desired positive future as if it has occurred without considering the steps needed to get there leads to lower commitment and effort towards goals, and more recently, she and her colleagues found that positive fantasies are associated with increases in symptoms of depression over time,” Miranda told PsyPost. “Her work suggested that in the short-term, positive fantasies may improve mood, but in the long-term, they may worsen mood. After initially reading her work several years ago, we had also wondered whether this type of fantasizing might sometimes take on the form of rumination, a maladaptive form of repetitive thinking that we know is associated with depression.”

The researchers first surveyed 261 undergraduate students about engaging in positive fantasies about the future. They also measured the participants’ depressive symptoms (using the Beck Depression Inventory) and their level of rumination. Then, the students returned to the researchers about six weeks later to have their fantasies and level of depressive symptoms assessed again.

The study did not find that engaging in positive fantasies about the future led directly to depressive symptoms over time. Instead, the relationship was an indirect one through brooding — meaning the passive dwelling on a negative mood. This form of rumination appeared to be linked to both positive fantasies and depressive symptoms.

“Our findings suggest that fantasizing about a positive, desired future once in a while (i.e., inconsistently) is not necessarily maladaptive over time; it is when people indulge in positive fantasies about the future more consistently, or when people’s fantasies increase that they may tend to more closely either resemble or lead to maladaptive forms of rumination such as brooding,” Miranda told PsyPost.

“Furthermore, to the degree that such fantasies are associated with brooding, they may indirectly interfere with people’s ability to think about positive things that are likely to happen in their futures. What this means is that positive fantasies may, over the long-term, if engaged in consistently, make it difficult for people to be optimistic about their futures, to the degree that they either trigger or resemble brooding.”

Miranda and her colleagues outlined two ways that brooding could connect positive fantasies to depressive symptoms. First, people who engage in positive fantasies may be dwelling on a desired outcome in their life while not actually working toward that goal in reality. The failure to attain that goal then leads to increased depressive symptoms. Secondly, people who engage in positive fantasies may not actually believe that their fantasies can become reality in the first place — and turn to brooding after the fantasy stops.

But there is still more research to be done. Miranda acknowledged her study had some limitations.

“This study assessed people about 6 weeks apart, and while we examined positive fantasies and depressive symptoms at two points in time, we only examined rumination at one time point (baseline); so we don’t actually know whether rumination precedes or follows fantasizing (or whether there is a third variable that influences both),” she explained to PsyPost. “Additional research needs to be conducted over longer periods of time to better understand the circumstances under which positive fantasies about the future are adaptive versus maladaptive; and it would be important to study community and clinical samples with a wider age range (as this study was conducted with college students).”

“We should also note that we used a different method of assessing positive fantasies than have Oettingen and colleagues,” Miranda added. “In their research, they ask participants to fantasize about given scenarios, write down their thoughts and images, and then to rate the positivity and negativity of these thoughts. They use a composite score based on people’s ratings of their own thoughts as their measure of positive fantasies. In contrast, we asked people to fantasize about things they had already been thinking about recently, to write them down, and we had independent raters code these narratives for valence (i.e., how positive versus negative they were) and for the degree to which they reflected engaging in a fantasy. We used this as a measure of positive fantasies instead of participants’ own self-ratings in an attempt to verify that the thoughts they reported were actually fantasies.”

The study, “Positive future-oriented fantasies and depressive symptoms: Indirect relationship through brooding“, was also co-authored by Natalia Macrynikola, Shama Goklani, and Julia Slotnick.

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